Tuesday May 19th, 2015
Employee wellness is much more than a workplace buzz phrase. Companies have been discovering the multiple advantages of helping their employees take important steps toward maintaining optimum physical and mental health. As the programs have become more popular, governmental oversight has been sought to set standards and prevent discrimination.
What is an employee wellness program?
Wellness programs are typically organized, employer-sponsored plans or activities designed to educate, support and encourage employees to adopt and maintain behaviors that can reduce health risks and health care costs while improving quality of life. Activities consist of health education and coaching, weight management programs, medical screenings, on-site fitness programs, smoking cessation and much more. With so many employees spending most of their days sitting at desks, implementing programs inside the workplace has become vital to encouraging a healthy lifestyle.
It’s not just Weight Watchers classes and walking clubs
Many local community agencies work in partnership with neighboring businesses to implement wellness programs. Some companies provide nondenominational chaplains who meet with employees and family members to assist with such stressful events as divorce, illness and grief recovery. Wellness programs can include sessions to discuss health and well-being and provide tips about financial wellness issues such as changing bad spending habits and getting out of debt. Classes that teach healthier cooking with fresh produce, herbs and spices also contribute to employee wellness.
Benefits of employee wellness programs
When implemented properly, wellness programs can boost morale and productivity, develop employee pride and generate a sense of community. Some organizations offer incentives where employees can participate in a reward program to accrue points toward travel, movies, music or other prizes. These programs have been effective at improving health, reducing absenteeism and boosting job performance. Other tangible benefits have been seen, generally with long-term implemented wellness programs such as reduction of specific high dollar claims, reduced use of certain pharma categories as well as alerting an employee to a potentially fatal condition through biometric screenings.
Bona-fide wellness programs
There are two types of bona-fide wellness programs. One is participatory where an individual simply must participate in the original or alternative program/activity to receive the premium reduction or other incentive. The second is the health contingent programs where an individual must achieve an established BMI, BP or alternative to receive the premium reduction or other incentive. The required components of this program are frequency, amount, availability, reasonableness and proper notice.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently issued proposed regulations and interpretive guidance as to how corporate wellness programs can comply with the ADA while avoiding discrimination. This notice was in response to protests claiming that certain programs violated the ADA because their rewards or penalties were in effect mandatory, since employees couldn’t afford not to take part. The law says that wellness programs must be voluntary.
Some highlights of the proposed recommendations include:
Provide accommodation, not intimidation
The proposed rule added a new requirement:
Employers also may not subject employees to interference with their ADA rights, threats, intimidation, or coercion for refusing to participate in a wellness program or for failing to achieve certain health outcomes. Individuals with disabilities must be provided with reasonable accommodations that allow them to participate in wellness programs and to earn whatever incentive an employer offers.
Clarification of incentives
Although incentives are permitted under the ADA, the proposed rule clarifies that employers can offer limited incentives up to a maximum of 30 percent of the total cost of employee-only coverage in the form of a reward or penalty. Promoting an employee’s participation in a wellness program includes disability-related inquiries or biometric examinations, as long as participation is voluntary.
Confidential medical information
In accordance with ADA requirements, medical information collected to design and offer specific programs as part of a wellness initiative may be disclosed to employers in aggregate terms only and must remain confidential without revealing the employee’s identity.
Comments for the proposed revisions are due to the EEOC no later than June 19, 2015. Instructions for submitting comments are specified in the Federal Register. After modifications have been made, the Commission will then vote on the final rule.